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Changing how we see aging

Oldest Boldest Strongest

Older Adults Achievements

We want to retain our youth—our vigor—-for longer periods of our lives. We should heed the lesson of Tithonus, a mythological Greek king whose lover granted him immortality but not eternal youth. He eventually became so wrinkled and incapacitated that his lover turned him into a cicada—eternally living, but begging for death. What we seek is not just longevity but vigor, and a lot of older adults are finding it and holding on to it.

Louis Armstrong was 66-years-and-10-months-old when his career peaked with "What A Wonderful World" and "Cabaret" in 1968. Armstrong is one of many who continued to be especially productive into older age. Numerous examples exist of artists, actors, writers and academicians who continue to produce great work at older age. A half-century ago, Harvey Lehman showed that our most creative period is between ages 33-36. But the formula is not prescriptive, and exceptions are common. When it comes to health and longevity, we all want to be the exception. It is not that we just want to live longer, it is that we want to live longer, healthier.

More and more older adults are breaking conventional expectations about physical barriers. In 2006, Maria del Carmen Bousada Lara gave birth to twin boys in Barcelona, Spain. Nothing remarkable about that except Lara was within a week of her 67th birthday. Although older adults are breaking records across the board, 2002 was a banner year. Tamae Watanabe reached the summit of Mt Everest at the age of 63. Jenny Wood-Allen completed the London Marathon at 90-years-old. James Talbot Guyer parachuted off the 148 m (486 ft) high Perrine Bridge near Twin Falls, Idaho at age 74 years. More recently, Robert McKeague, age 80, completed the 2005 Ford Ironman World Championship. Two years later, Linda Ashmore swam the English Channel at age 60. After that, Bahadur Sherchan reached the highest point on Earth—summiting Mount Everest at the age of 76.

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Thomas Perls, a gerontologist who studies centenarians, has shown that although income and education increase our survival rate to age 85, the rest of our survival is pretty much determined by genetics. We can’t do anything about that, at least for now. Still, it seems that a lot more older adults are reaching older age while they’re healthy and active.

We will see more of these "exceptions"—older adults who are not only productive in the arts and sciences, but also in sports. For some people, we might see our vigor extending to later life. But with this vigor comes responsibility. We shouldn’t believe that being healthy equates to unlimited longevity or immortality. In a way it reminds us that the best we can hope for is to die while we are healthy. Remembering the story of Tithonus, we don’t have much of a future as cicadas.

© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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